Winning the White House in 2016
BRIAN BURCH: Aspirational rhetoric is important for Republicans to win the White House . . .
Remember Obama’s feisty “you didn’t build that” charge? The provocative line struck a nerve with entrepreneurs and business owners across the country.
How could he be so dismissive? Doesn’t he recognize the risks, sacrifices, and hard work required to build a successful business? It’s entirely possible that Obama’s remark wasn’t a gaffe at all. By goading Republicans into defending business owners, the Obama campaign helped further cement a central narrative that ultimately sunk Mitt Romney. Exit polls showed Romney scoring higher among voters overall on the economy, values, and his vision for the future. But on the question of “Who cares about people like me?” voters favored Obama by a whopping 81-18 points.
Romney and his surrogates didn’t waste time coming to the defense of American businesses. In Tampa, they paraded business leader after business leader before the Republican National Convention. But something was missing. Or someone. As Rick Santorum later noted, the stage should have included the other people who help build businesses, namely the workers.
The key to Obama’s success in 2012 was his ability to destroy Romney’s reputation among working-class voters. Indeed, whether a gaffe or not, having a fight over who “built that” became part of a larger Obama campaign strategy.
An ad by Priorities USA titled “Stage” was narrated by Mike Earnest who described building a stage at a paper plant in Marion, Ind. He explained that after they built the stage, everyone was fired. “Mitt Romney made over $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives. Turns out when we built that stage it was like building our own coffin, and it just makes me sick,” Ernest said in the ad. The ads worked. Following the election, Ohio voters in focus groups specifically brought up the coffin ad to denounce Romney.
Sean Trende, an elections analyst with Real Clear Politics, discovered that 2012 was the year of the “Missing White Voter.” Between 2008 and 2012, the census estimated that the number of whites of voting age increased by 3 million. Trende says: “If we assume that these ‘new’ voters would vote at a 55% rate, we calculate that the total number of white votes cast would have increased by 1.6 million from 2008 to 2012.” The opposite occurred. The number of white voters actually went down by 6.1 million. Romney lost because white working-class voters, especially in the Rust Belt, refused to go to the polls to support a candidate who, they believed, made money at the expense of workers like them.
The strategy has become all too familiar. Democratic politicians consistently brand their positions as policies favoring “working families,” yet Republicans struggle to make the same case. While Republicans consistently win voters making $50,000 per year or more (approximate U.S. median income), voters making under $50,000 determine who wins. Molly Ball of The Atlantic writes: “Whether Democrats win these voters by a 10-point or a 20-point margin tells you who won every national election for the past decade.”
Republicans are beginning to get the message. The key to their electoral successes rests with how well they do with working-class voters — particularly white voters. Democrats likewise are in hot pursuit of the same demographic, touting policies such as free community college and an increase in the minimum wage.
Conservatives are paying more attention to a “reformed conservatism” policy agenda championed in part by leaders such as Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute. NBC News recently reported that Brooks, a devout Catholic, “has the ear of every potential presidential candidate.” Admonishing Republicans to think creatively about policy and message, Brooks is changing the way the GOP is talking about poverty and poor people.
Potential Republican presidential candidates have already adjusted their rhetoric. Jeb Bush talks about a “right to rise.” Marco Rubio says the problem isn’t income inequality but “opportunity inequality.” Scott Walker routinely casts himself as a champion of “hard-working taxpayers,” while Mike Huckabee’s new book title is unapologetic: God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.
Gone is rhetoric that was toxic with blue-collar voters. No more who “built that” defense of business owners or references to “takers.”
A move to aspirational rhetoric is an important first step for Republicans anxious to win back the White House. But equally important are concrete policy proposals and a message that resonates with America’s working families — especially families in purple states such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania (these are states, incidentally, where approximately 25% or more of the electorate call themselves Catholic).
BRIAN BURCH is president of CatholicVote.org, a national Catholic grassroots advocacy group based in Chicago, Ill.